Shaun Tobac loves to hunt.
Between moose and caribou in the Sahtu region, Tobac takes what he needs for his own family and then provides meat for the elders in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.
But an unusually warm fall and winter has yielded a slow year for hunters and trappers in the N.W.T.
From a lack of animals on the landscape to safety concerns, to stories of changes in the snow and wind, several northerners discussed the “weird” season and its impact on hunting this year.
Tobac was raised on the land.
Taught by his grandfather, Charlie, and other elders in Fort Good Hope, Tobac learned how to hunt moose and caribou and trap furs at a young age — a skill he now uses to give back to the community.
“A lot of people ask for meat so I’m always hunting,” the 27-year-old said with a laugh.
Providing elders with moose and caribou meat, the hunter doesn’t ask for payment but does accept help with gas money for the ski-doo.
But it has been a hard season.
“I kind of find it different because we usually do our hunting, we usually go to the river for moose, but it’s pretty hard for the moose on the river because the water came up too high,” Tobac said.
The Fort Good Hope local also traps but said the lack of snow this season has wreaked havoc on the machines.
“Trapping season opened in October but then there was hardly no snow until around Christmas,” he said. “There was only like half a foot of snow, so it’s really hard to travel around and you got to go slow and it’s hard on the ski-doo. I keep having ski-doo problems.”
The animals also seem scarce during the warm weather.
“I notice the marten, when it gets warm here, they kind of come out and then the next thing, they go missing. I don’t know where they go … but you don’t end up seeing tracks for a long time,” he said.
The furs he has been able to trap, Tobac sells to conservation officers or keeps for sewing.
“This is the lowest year I’ve had in a while,” he said.
“Everything is a little bit lucky every now and then, but then we don’t, we aren’t really catching, so we’re having a hard time [because] we’re pretty much spending a lot of money on gas and food and all that, and we’re not making it back.
“So it’s a pretty tough year.”
Warm weather creates chaotic conditions
With the warm weather also comes safety concerns.
The high water, lack of frozen creeks and unstable ice can be dangerous for hunters and trappers, sometimes fatal.
The tiniest town in the territories, Kakisa, lost a respected elder and fisherman who fell through the ice last spring.
“Fred Simba, he was one of the elders that always went out ahead of everyone, he broke trail. He was the first one out and the last one back,” Kakisa Chief Lloyd Chicot said.
The loss made the community leery to go out on the land and Chief Chicot attributes the dangerous conditions to global warming.
“The whole global warming situation … the warmer winters, you know, the lack of ice buildup, the earlier snow. You find yourself when you’re out on the land, you have to be more careful because the ice is not forming like it used to,” Chicot said.
The warming weather is a trend elders have been noticing for years, Dene knowledge keeper John Bekale said.
“Something natural about the wind changes … when you’re on the big lake you notice the drifts, we call it the drifts. When the drifts change a little that means the wind changed a little, you know, we notice,” Bekale said.
Growing up using dog sleds to travel, hunt and check traplines, Bekale said those going out on the land had to be aware of the subtle weather changes.
“You learned from your dad and from your elders back then, all the different changes to know,” he said.
“You talk about a different kind of snow, which is better for the sleigh, when to wait for the wind, when to wait for the cold spell. Everything is dependent on these things.”
When you’re out on the land, you have to be more careful because the ice is not forming like it used to.– Chief Lloyd Chicot
Back when Bekale watched people use dog sleds, he said they would go out at the beginning of November and be back in time for the end of December celebrations. But in the last couple of years, the lakes are taking longer to freeze up.
When asked if the elders know why the wind and snow are changing, Bekale said it is still a mystery.
“That is the question for all of us, even myself — we are not scientists, we’re not,” he said.
The Dene elder said he would like to see traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge work together.
“The weather is just not the way it used to be,” he said.
While the “weird” weather is causing a tough hunting and trapping season across the territories, a common theme among northerners is the resilient spirit shown.
Chief Chicot said the high waters have brought an unexpected perk of more berries during harvesting season.
And despite the lack of game caught this season, Tobac still has a great outlook on life.
Going out on the land, calling himself boss and being able to bring his partner and five-month-old baby, Charlie, along for the adventure is all worth it.
“To be out there, that’s all I care about,” he said.